10 April 2016

A short walk to the Mutzbachfall and the Oberbüelschnubel

Time: 3.5 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 575 metres
Height loss: 575 metres

Riedtwil – Mutzbachfall – Oberbüelschnubel – Oschwand - Riedtwil

Another sunny Sunday, and another day with a watery theme to it, at least in its first part. This short, circular walk is an attractive combination of waterfalls, woods, fields and gently rolling countryside, at the end of a week when colder weather has brought a fresh dusting of snow to the mountains.

The walk starts in the village of Riedtwil, between Herzogenbuchsee and Burgdorf in the depths of the countryside east of Bern. It’s a rather inconvenient place to get to: trains no longer stop at the village’s railway station and although there is an hourly bus service, there is a gap in the timetable at just the point that would have coincided with a comfortable 9 a.m. start from Lucerne. The choice is between 8:00 and 10:00: I go for the relaxed option, which means that I only start walking at half past eleven.

Old house in Riedtwil
Riedtwil is a tranquil backwater, its attractive old farmhouses stung out along a lane alongside which flows a little stream, the Mutzbach. The architecture here is very different from that of the Lucerne area: the large, half-timbered houses would not look out of place in Normandy, were it not for their very Swiss roofs. Even the landscape would pass for Normandy if the valleys were a little less deep.

The stream leads me southwards, the lane soon veering off to the left while I continue along the first of the day’s many grassy paths. A couple is standing beside the stream having their photo taken: she is in a long, black evening dress, he is wearing a suit. I continue into a very green valley whose sides gradually become higher. The grassy path becomes muddy in places and tall trees lean over the stream, just starting to come into leaf.

Just as I am telling myself what a lovely, peaceful place this is, the tranquillity is broken. I have caught up with a large group of families, out for a walk together. There must be ten adults, as many children and two or three dogs. They are talking noisily, and are strung out over a distance of maybe half a kilometre. I debate whether to try to get ahead of them (but this would mean hurrying and not enjoying the scenery) or letting them get ahead of me (but that would mean stopping for a quarter of an hour, then catching up with them again later). In the end I just decide to ignore them, and for the next fifteen minutes we constantly overtake each other as I stop to take photos of the little stream, which flows very prettily over several small waterfalls.

The Mutzbach flows over small waterfalls...
After half an hour’s walking, the valley becomes abruptly more narrow, its sides higher and rockier. And ahead, here is the main feature of the walk: the Mutzbachfall. Fifteen metres high, it is a surprisingly big waterfall for such an insignificant stream, which is not even in the mountains. A white ponytail of water glistens in the sun as it plunges over a rocky sill and down into a pool below. The contrast between white water, dark grey rock, orange and brown leaves, green moss and the colours of various plants is really beautiful.

... and over the 15-metre-high Mutzbachfall

A short, steep climb leads up to the top of the fall, ending in a short, almost vertical metal ladder. The dogs are having trouble getting up the ladder, which enables me to get ahead of most of the family group. Past the fall, the path drops back down to the bank of the stream, which it crosses on a wooden footbridge, before running southwards along the opposite bank through a tunnel of greenery. It then climbs gradually up and away from the valley bottom, turns west and leaves the forest for more open countryside.

The view now opens up to reveal a landscape of green fields dotted with cows; rounded hills topped with lines of trees silhouetted against the horizon; hedgerows and copses; and deep valleys running back down towards the Mutzbach, which has managed to carve a gorge out of all proportion to its tiny size. Ahead is the little cluster of houses that forms the village of Rüedisbach, at an altitude of 640 metres: I head towards it across grassy meadows where cows stare at me curiously from behind a fence.

The village is tiny, and it only takes me a minute to walk through it an out the other side, passing through a field of pungent cabbages, then continuing steeply up a grassy hillside to reach a lane which soon brings me to the hamlet of Wil. Two women walking the other way ask me for directions to a local farmhouse which apparently featured in some film or other. I cannot help them, but show them where we are on the map that I printed out at home, and give them the page covering the part of the walk that I have already done and which I no longer need.

Tranquil, pastoral landscape at Rüedisbach
The lane climbs steadily uphill now towards the 818-metre Oberbüelschnubel, a rounded green hump of a hill that marks the highest point of the walk. Gradually the view southwards and south-westwards becomes more and more extensive, with row upon row of fields, woods and farmhouses leading away to the mountains of the Bernese Oberland, almost invisible in the haze. In the foreground, the fruit trees are almost but not quite in blossom: without the cold snap of the last few days, they would probably be flowering. A bird of prey hovers very close above me, then drops suddenly to pick up some small animal from the ploughed field to the right of the path and takes to the air again.

I reach the top of the Oberbüelschnubel at about ten past one, just right for lunch. There are some benches on the summit, but they face away from the best views and there is another noisy family group there, so I drop down a few metres to the east, where a nicely placed bench provides an attractive spot for me to eat my sandwiches, cherry tomatoes and apple. After lunch, I set off down a grassy crest that winds its way down to the little village of Ferrenberg, 754 m. Two magpies flutter away from a hedge just in front of me: One for sorrow, two for joy, the rhyme says, and it's not too often that I can remember seeing the magic number of two together.

Ferrenberg is even more of a backwater than the other villages through which I have passed. In its centre is a very old-fashioned looking restaurant, out of whose door is coming a series of very old-looking local inhabitants. The façade of the restaurant is displaying an odd collection of old signs: there is an ancient-looking advert for Feldschlösschen beer and a metal plaque indicating that the place has a telephone. The restaurant sign itself bears a picture of what would have probably been called a "savage" back in the day, bearing a bow and arrow, naked except for a grass skirt. A few metres further on, the lane passes under a wooden gallery connecting two large farm buildings: there is a height restriction sign above the passage, plus another one that says, in English: Cows crossing.

The restaurant at Ferrenberg
I leave the lane for yet another one of those grassy paths, which climbs up onto another ridge, unnamed on the map but at an altitude of 815 metres. Past this point, my route turns northwards as I begin the return back to my starting point at Riedtwil. A longish stretch of asphalted lane follows, mostly in forest and with no views. This eventually gives way to a succession of muddy tracks, some boggier than others. A surprising number of cyclists; not just mountain bikers, but also normal road bikes and a number of people pass me on electric bikes as well. Clearly these quiet, undulating lanes and woodland tracks are popular for bike tours. 

Between Wäckerschwend and Oschwand
A lane winds round a series of hillsides before bringing me to Wäckerschwenden, yet another one of those backwater villages that punctuate the walk. It seems hard to believe that the capital city is only half an hour away; rarely in the Swiss lowlands have I been in an area that feels quite so out of the way. I climb out of the village to a junction of lanes and forest tracks at 760 metres, and suddenly, on leaving the forest, the Jura mountains appear right ahead, with the Weissenstein above Solothurn the most prominent feature. In the foreground, a newly ploughed field offers multiple shades of brown against the blue backdrop of the hills. I follow farm tracks north-westwards to Oschwand, a somewhat larger village. From here, the last of the day's grassy paths runs quite steeply downhill, taking me back into the valley of the Mutzbach, which I re-join close to the starting point of my walk at the southern end of Riedtwil. A short walk, and by no means an exciting one, but I am perfectly happy to have seen three hours' worth of rolling countryside under a warm, spring sun.

03 April 2016

When the Kleine Emme becomes the Waldemme

Time: 4.5 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 760 metres
Height loss: 320 metres

Schüpfheim – Flühli – Sörenberg

A week after my Easter Saturday walk along the Kleine Emme, I am back in Schüpfheim to continue upstream. It is a warm day, although the sky is only partially blue and there is a thick haze – the fault of dust carried by the strong southerly winds from the Sahara, according to Meteosuisse.

A short walk from the station brings me back to the riverbank, with its familiar bird boxes and picnic areas. Daisies are growing alongside the path, and forsythia is flowering yellow. In an adventure playground, children are whizzing from tree to tree down a zip line while two women - maybe their mothers - are exercising in perfect synchronisation on what looks like an instrument of torture, standing in stirrups and pumping their legs rhythmically. I pass behind new blocks of flats, as yet unoccupied, then alongside one of the region’s many sawmills, following the river out of town.

On the outskirts of town, opposite the Gasthaus Bad (would you eat in a place with a name like that?), I come to a place where the Kleine Emme splits into two, and where the river’s name changes. Flowing in from the west is the smaller Wiss Emme (or “white Emme”). The main stream, which I will be following, runs down from the mountains to the south and, upstream of this point, is called the Waldemme or “forest Emme”. I cross the river on a covered wooden bridge where plaques commemorate not one, but two fatal accidents; one in 1909 and the second in 1958. I wonder what can have caused two such tragedies in the same place as I cross the bridge, making it safely to the far bank.

The Wiss Emme joins the Waldemme on the outskirts of Schüpfheim. Together, they form the Kleine Emme.
Now the path narrows and climbs up above the river, atop a steep, almost vertical bank. A metal cable secures the narrowest section; though the path is broad and easy, a slip in wet conditions could lead to a nasty fall here. The river seems louder and wilder here than it was east of Schüpfheim, its course natural and unaffected by man-made diversions or canalisations. At Anetämme I cross back to the east bank; here, the path temporarily leaves the riverside, heading eastwards to cross the main road, then turning southwards again to climb along a narrow lane above the mouth of the Lammschlucht gorge. An elegant stone bridge high above the entrance to the gorge carries the road up towards Sörenberg, the three-note sound of a post-bus horn echoing between the rocky walls.

Wood and water... on a covered bridge near Schüpfheim
Following the lane uphill above grey cliffs, I come to Chlusstalde, a tiny hamlet consisting of just one house and a fairly large, whitewashed chapel. A sign beside the chapel indicates the direction to a "Lourdes grotto"; I follow the sign, hoping for some kind of cavern cut into the cliff face, but the grotto is no more than a little niche in the chapel wall, complete with an arched roof and a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Two or three hundred metres further on, after crossing a side stream on a bridge, the path leaves the lane down a steep flight of metal stairs and heads back towards the river, contouring along the edge of the cliffs above the Lammschlucht. Large farmhouses dot the hillside above, each easily identifiable by its name written in big, white letters on the side of the farmhouse, as is the custom in the area. Disappointingly, the path stays high above the river, offering only partial views down through the trees to the wild water far below. Only at one point, where the gorge narrows, does the path drop down to leap across the turbulent river on a metal footbridge.

In the Lammschlucht gorge
I reach the southern end of the gorge, where the valley widens out very suddenly. Ahead of me, the river runs straight, leading the eye up a series of little waterfalls, beyond conifers and into the mountainous distance. I stop for a quick lunch break here, using a handily placed bench to eat my sandwich and apple (one of my more minimalist hiking picnics, it must be said). In the distance up ahead, the high ridge of the Brienzergrat, frontier between central Switzerland and the Bernese Oberland, is an intimidating mass of grey rock and white snow. The sky has clouded over completely now, although the day is still warm enough for me to only need a T-shirt… not bad for the first weekend of April.

Looking up river towards Flühli
I reach the village of Flühli, with its faded, elegant Hotel Kurhaus. At the entrance to the village, an artist has installed sculptures for sale along the path. They consist of towers of stones, presumably cemented one on top of the other to form tall, skinny cairns. Though they would undoubtedly make for nice decorations among the bushes in a garden, the price tag of 2,500 francs or more for what are basically piles of stones really make me wonder how many the artist sells.

A hefty price tag for these stone sculptures
Beyond Flühli, I seem to pass some kind of frontier between the seasons. The temperature starts to drop, and there are few if any signs of spring. The trees are still bare and the grass on the hillsides is still a wintry grey-green colour: these slopes must have still been covered in snow very recently and indeed, I start to see patches of snow beside the path. I cross a bridge over the Rotbach, a sizeable side stream, after which the Waldemme becomes somewhat smaller and narrower, carrying less water. At the entrance to a woodland section, a noticeboard explains that these woods were inhabited in prehistoric times by the ancestors of today's dragonflies; their wingspan, I am informed, could reach almost a metre. Life-size models of these prehistoric insects are positioned strategically in the trees beside and above the path, just enough to give the unwary child or hiker a momentary fright. 

The Waldemme above Flühli
A less interesting twenty minutes comes next, where the path runs directly alongside the main road. I pass beside a scruffy second-hand car dealer's yard, where several battered wrecks of cars proudly proclaim "Quality Guaranteed!" In the middle, incongruously, is an absolutely beautiful Volkswagen Beetle from 1960. At Hirseggbrücke, I leave the road and cross the river once again. The valley narrows once more and, as at the Lammschlucht, the path climbs high up above the river. This is the steepest and longest climb of the day, zigzagging up from 900 to an altitude of about 1100 metres above the gorge. Ahead, the Brienzergrat has come considerably closer and the sky has darkened; it does not rain, but it can't be far off. 

As I approach the farm of Birkenhof, I can hear a dog barking… and it sounds like a big one. The path runs right through the middle of the farmyard, and I feel uneasy. It's a big relief when I get close enough to see the animal: a big, floppy Bernese mountain dog, which is wagging its tail frantically. It runs up to me and gives my right hand a big, wet lick, then thrusts its nose into my legs, clearly asking to be stroked… one of the more pleasant doggy encounters of my travels. Having climbed up to this highest point of the day, the path now drops all the way back down to the riverside. The last half hour offers some of the day's best scenery, as I walk up beside white water that rushes over waterfalls against a background of dark forest, with substantial snow patches in several places. 

The Brienzergrat
The day's strangest sight comes right at the end of the walk, just before I reach Sörenberg. In a snow-covered clearing, about fifteen teenagers are standing in three rows. Most of them are Asian, a few are African, and they are all half-naked, wearing Roman togas and not much else. On the edge of the clearing, an Asian girl is filming this odd scene. Out of curiosity, I ask her what they are doing. She explains that they are students from an international school, and that they are making a promotional video for some kind of school event. I debate whether to ask her for permission to take a photo of what must be one of the strangest things I have ever seen in Switzerland, but I don't dare.

The river just below Sörenberg, at the end of the walk
I reach the little ski resort of Sörenberg at about half past three, with 25 minutes to wait for the bus. The resort is shutting down for the end of the ski season: some of the bars and shops are closed until May; one cable car is operating but only a few isolated figures are skiing down slopes that are rapidly losing their last covering of snow. I sit outside the Hotel Sörenberg and order a beer until it's time to get the bus back down the valley to Schüpfheim, where I catch the train back to Lucerne. In three days' walking, I have covered pretty much the entire course of the Kleine Emme, from its mouth at Emmenbrücke to the foot of the mountains where it has its source.

28 March 2016

An Easter walk over the Hohwacht and the Zwanghubel

Time: 5 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 690 metres
Height loss: 490 metres

Gutenburg – Hohwacht – Huttwil – Zwanghubel – Dürrenroth

The weather forecast for Easter Monday is not as spectacularly good as it was on Saturday, but it still looks like the day will be suitable for hiking. With rain coming from the west in the afternoon though, an early start is needed: thanks to a superhuman effort, we manage to get up, have breakfast and be at the station by nine. The sky is an encouraging blue, better than I had expected. There is still too much snow in the mountains to go anywhere significantly high, so I have chosen a long walk over the hills between Langenthal and Huttwil, to the northwest of Lucerne.

On arriving at the station, we immediately see that there is a problem: pretty much every train is either cancelled or significantly delayed. The 09:16 train to Langenthal is not waiting at the platform, as it should be. At 9:45 there is still no sign of it, and it is 10:35 before we finally leave Lucerne... All our efforts to get up early have been for nothing; we have lost an hour and a half and decide to shorten the walk by starting at Gutenburg rather than going all the way to Langenthal. Even so, it's midday before we are able to do any actual walking.

By now the sky has gone from blue to grey, and looks even greyer in the direction in which we are heading. The train stops in a series of sad-looking villages – Menznau, Zell, Willisau – each with a sad-looking Hotel Bahnhof and run-down industry. Only Huttwil looks more alive: here, the station has been recently renovated and the Hotel Bahnhof has been given a lick of fresh paint. Each time the train doors open, the wind that blows in seems colder. It is not an auspicious start.

Gutenburg is a tiny request stop in the middle of nowhere. We emerge from the warmth of the train into a cold, windy landscape. The sky is leaden grey; it looks like the afternoon's promised rain is going to be ahead of schedule. Away to the northwest, the Jura is a faint line of darker grey. My hands are cold and I wish I had a second fleece. A lane soon gives way to forest paths that bring us to a large, isolated restaurant at Bürgisweyerbad. Ducks quack from the middle of a large pond but the place is otherwise deserted, not yet open for the spring season.

A grey start to the walk... luckily, things will soon improve
Against all odds, the weather starts to improve: it is exactly the opposite of what the forecast said. As we approach the sneezy-sounding hamlet of Ghürn (645 m), where there are sheep, goats and hens in abundance, patches of blue sky appear to the west and the sun is clearly visible through the cloud. Things are looking up. We climb steeply up through fields above Ghürn, spattered by occasional raindrops blowing in the wind. Before long, we reach the first of the day's summits, the wooded ridge of Hohwacht, at an altitude of 779 metres. Here, the view suddenly opens out eastwards, looking out across woods and fields to a long, snow-covered mountain range which I can only guess must be the Pilatus, seen from a completely different angle to those with which I am familiar. There is a tall concrete viewing tower on the Hohwacht, built in 1911 according to the guidebook. We climb to the top up a rather narrow stairway, straight at first, then spiralling up to the viewing platform. 

Back at ground level, it's time for lunch. We may only have been walking for a bit more than an hour but it is already well past one o'clock and we had an early breakfast. I have made lentil and carrot soup, which makes for a perfect prelude to some very tasty sandwiches bought from one of the bakeries at Lucerne station. A mountain biker rides up from the eastern side of the hill; stops, contemplates the view for a long time, then rides off westwards.

We finish our picnic and continue southwards along a broad ridge, buffeted by the wind in places. Along this section of the hike there is a fair bit of walking to be done on hard surfaces, but there is very little traffic and the views are superb. The fields are green, the trees are somewhere between winter and spring, at that stage where the budding leaves are not yet green but the trees are no longer completely bare. Little hamlets and isolated farmhouses nestle in hollows of the land while overhead, a constantly changing procession of clouds and blue sky add interest to the light. There are occasional showers, sometimes seeming to come out of a clear blue sky as the wind blows the rain across from distant clouds. It is - as my friend rightly says - Easter weather, and it fills our lungs with a healthy dose of fresh air.

The weather has changed completely by mid-afternoon
We drop steeply down to Huttwil, where we have to cross the railway and the valley of the Langete. The path ahead is clearly visible, climbing equally steeply up the far side of the valley. On the western outskirts of the little town at Fiechten, a large sawmill perfumes the air with the smell of freshly cut wood. 

Spring in Huttwil
Now we have to climb up again, about 150 metres steeply uphill to the farmhouse at Zwang, 752 m. Just above the farm is the Zwanghubel, not marked on the map but unjustly so. It may not be a mountain or even a proper hill, but it is a magnificent viewpoint. The panorama stretches all the way from the Rigi in the east to the mountains of the Bernese Oberland away to the west. The long range already seen from the Hohwacht is now clearly the Pilatus, identifiable mainly from its position in relation to the Rigi, whose shape is exactly the same as when seen from my balcony: we must be in precisely the same alignment. 

The Pilatus range from the Zwanghubel
We continue southwestwards, following a lane that runs along the crest of a ridge between two valleys. The view is extensive in almost every direction, with green hills below a sky in which the alternating sun and clouds cast shadows and pools of light across the greens and yellows of the fields. We pass a number of large, imposing farmhouses, and then drop back down into the valley to reach Dürrenroth, our destination for today. It's a pretty little village with large, old houses set around a central square. We have half an hour to wait for the bus, so we sit outside the Hotel Bären and enjoy a cup of tea and a beer. It's really nice to be able to sit outside: spring is definitely on its way.

26 March 2016

Along the Kleine Emme from Wolhusen to Schüpfheim

Time: 4.5 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 340 metres
Height loss: 200 metres

Wolhusen – Entlebuch – Schüpfheim

This year’s Easter weekend is the eighteenth since I moved to Switzerland. The dominant memories of previous ones are either having to work in order to meet some project milestone or other, or of not being able to do anything because of the weather. And so it is a wonderful surprise when, this year, Météosuisse suddenly informs me that both Saturday and Monday should be warm and sunny. With a friend staying for the long weekend, it looks like an excellent opportunity to get some much needed fresh air and scenery.

When we get up on Easter Saturday, the weather looks every bit as good as the forecast promised. From the living room window, the snow-whitened summit of the Pilatus pokes out above residual wisps of cloud against an otherwise perfect blue backdrop. For today’s walk, I have suggested that we pick up where I left off last weekend, and continue up the valley of the Kleine Emme to either Entlebuch, Schüpfheim or Flühli, depending on how much time and energy we have. A lazy breakfast and a resulting eleven o’clock start from Lucerne railway station make it unlikely that we will make it all the way to Flühli though.

A short train ride brings us to Wolhusen. The town straggles out for what seems like miles along the main road, and it takes quite a long time to break free of it. We pass an “Asian” restaurant offering pizza, pasta and kebabs; a little further on, the Gasthaus August also has pizza on the menu, and a third restaurant that we pass has also put its money on the pizza-kebab duo. The inhabitants of Wolhusen are spoilt for choice, provided they have nothing against pizza and kebabs…

We finally reach the edge of town after about twenty minutes’ walking. As we wait to cross the main road to get to the riverbank, five or six motorcyclists roar up, revving their engines to make as much noise as possible and weaving from side to side to demonstrate their virile mastery of their machines. In Lucerne on Friday evening, I already noticed how the first “summery” weather of the year had brought out every idiot in the canton to roar up and down the streets of the town centre in their flashy cars.

We cross a bridge to the quieter western bank of the river, pursued by a lingering and pungent smell of slurry from some neighbouring field. The path, sometimes grassy, sometimes stony, runs southwards below low cliffs that look none too stable – these are the extension of the same cliffs that collapsed a few months ago, blocking the bed of the river and flooding part of Wolhusen. At a point where the path is further away from the river and some distance above it, there is a strange collection of objects: on the right side of the path is an old fridge fixed to a post with a notice telling people to keep its door closed (it contains an empty Fanta bottle and nothing else). Next to it is a very old-looking lifebuoy, which would probably not be of much use in an emergency, given how far away the river, is – the chances of dropping it at just the right spot in the fast-flowing water would be close to zero. On the other side of the path, a notice helpfully tells us that Didi's Pizza Corner in Wolhusen is now offering South African crocodile fillets on the menu, served with pineapple, mushrooms, banana and kiwi fruit. The number of pizza variations on offer in the little town is quite something!

Now the walk and the scenery become more interesting. The path climbs steeply up above the river to avoid a rocky outcrop, then drops down to cross a smaller river, the Fontanne, in a deep, narrow valley. A grassy clearing with colourful beehives comes next: hives that are very much in activity judging by the number of buzzing bees around them. At Chäppelibrücke we cross back to the east bank of the Emme. The next section takes us through woodland, the peace and quiet disturbed only by the occasional passing of trains on the line up above. On the far bank, people are preparing barbecues on little beaches beside the water. The path runs over a number of large humps of earth that run from the foot of the railway embankment to the riverside; built more than a hundred years ago during the construction of the Bern to Lucerne railway, these were intended to channel the undisciplined waters of the Kleine Emme in such a way as to prevent damage to the railway during floods. Numerous nesting boxes for birds have been nailed to trees beside the path; this is something that we will see again on Easter Monday, and seems to be characteristic of the area.

Crossing the Fontanne
We find a perfect spot for lunch. Leaving the path to the right, we cross a clearing, then make our way through thickets of bushes to the water's edge, where there is an area of large rounded stones and sand. It's a peaceful place, with not a sound to be heard except for rushing water and birdsong. Three different sorts of dried meat, two varieties of cheese, sourdough bread and plums make for a tasty picnic before we continue southwards.

A riverside lunch spot under a perfect blue sky
Soon afterwards, at Emmenmätteli, the path leaves the forest for a while, and we realise that our isolated lunch spot was in fact much closer to civilisation than we believed. Beside the path here, bushes with long, supple branches have been trained over hoop-shaped frames… for what purpose, we wonder? The only thing I can think of is that they will be used to weave wicker baskets. Back in the forest again, we pass in front of a pretty waterfall that cascades down a cliff on the other side of the river. We climb steeply up a wooden flight of stairs above the water again, then traverse high above a beautiful bend in the river where the water flows fast over a series of little rapids. The colours are lovely here: brownish green water, silvery spray, white stones that reflect the sunlight and green grass that absorbs it. 

In marked contrast now, the industrial buildings that line the railway at Entlebuch appear ahead. We pass between the station and a large mail-order distribution centre, then cross the Grosse Entlen on a covered wooden bridge, which a plaque seems to indicate was built by Jesus Christ himself in 1920. Well, Joseph was a carpenter after all, so he probably had access to the right tools… As we continue, a bird sings loudly in a tree just above us, its long, repetitive song ending with a trill and a very pronounced "TWEET TWEET", as if to say: "Look, I'm a bird and I can make proper bird noises".

Beyond Entlebuch, the scenery starts to become less interesting. Ahead, a regular hammering sound seems at first to indicate the presence of a quarry or a stonemason's workshop. As we get closer though, it becomes clear that it's a firing range… and the firing is happening right over our heads, with the firing positions on a bank above us to the left, and the targets away to our right on the other side of the river. It's not the first time I have been on paths in Switzerland that run directly below a rifle range, but that doesn't make it any less disconcerting. The numerous local walkers (including children) coming the other way don't seem worried though.

After the village of Hasle, where there is a large, well-equipped playground and barbecue area beside the river, the valley widens considerably, its sides become less steep and the course of the river is straighter. A side valley runs away to the left, with views of the snow-covered Schrattenflue in the distance. The Schrattenflue has been on my to-do list for years: this summer, I tell my friend, we will do it. 

A very Swiss garden swing in Schüpfheim
  After a little bit less than five hours' walking, we arrive at Schüpfheim. In a garden just before the railway station, a cabin taken from an old cable car has been converted into a very Swiss swing. We have ten minutes to wait for the train in the warm afternoon sun is warm. On the train back to Lucerne, we point out landmarks from the walk that we have just completed. Back home, it's the first opportunity of the year to have a post-hike beer on the balcony, admittedly a slightly chilly opportunity. A lovely day is brought to a fitting conclusion with a hot bath and a big bowl of spaghetti bolognese… what more could one ask for?

19 March 2016

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 14, from Lucerne to Wolhusen

Time: 5.5 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 640 metres
Height loss: 520 metres

Lucerne – Sonnenberg – Malters – Werthenstein - Wolhusen

In his book A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson writes of his surprise at discovering that the Appalachian Trail runs through the town where he lives. "It seemed such an extraordinary notion – the idea that I could set off from home and walk 1,800 miles through woods to Georgia, or turn the other way and clamber over the rough and stony White Mountains to the fabled prow of Mount Katahdin floating in forest 450 miles to the north in a wilderness few have seen". The Alpine Panorama Trail is admittedly not quite the Appalachian Trail – not so many bears or pumas for a start – but the idea of being able to walk out of the front door and be on a long-distance hiking route within five minutes is a rather nice one.

Without any trains or buses to catch there is no pressure on me to get up. Consequently it is a lazy, shameful ten o'clock before I make it outside into the warm, springlike air. We haven't had much of a winter this year, but the last three weeks have been unremittingly cold and grey, and have brought the snow line down below the thousand-metre mark. This weekend's early spring sunshine is a welcome change.

The first part of today's walk takes me up onto the Sonnenberg, a wooded hill just above Lucerne. It's a route which I have walked before and described here. I walk up the curving Berglistrasse lined with some beautiful houses, all with a magnificent view of the Rigi away to the east, probably more snow-covered now than at any previous time this winter. I continue up a broad forest track, passing numerous joggers and weekend strollers. Somewhere in the trees, a pigeon coos and is answered by the hammer-drill of a woodpecker doing a bit of Saturday morning DIY. At 600 metres I emerge from the forest: here, on a clear day, you get a sudden massive slap of Pilatus in the face. There is a thick haze this morning though, and the snow-covered precipices of the mountain are all but invisible.

Patches of snow on the Sonnenberg
I pass the highest point of the Sonnenberg (800 m), from where a seemingly endless flight of steps takes me steeply downhill to Ränggloch. Here, sandwiched between two hills, the path crosses a bridge above a deep, narrow cleft where a stream plunges between towering walls of rock. There are some strange things going on here. Suspended in mid-air above the gorge is a long, slender and very fragile-looking ladder: impossible to say if it serves (or used to serve) some practical purpose or if it is an artistic installation. People seem to have been losing items of clothing here too: just past the bridge over the gorge a grey, hooded fleece has been hung from an overhanging branch. Fifty metres further on, another branch is adorned with a woolly blue bobble-hat. 

Ränggloch. Note the ladder hanging in the middle.
I descend across fields to the hamlet of Blatten, 477 m, where the path crosses the main road and heads for the river Kleine Emme. There is a large white church here, in front of which is an information panel which explains to me that the path I will follow for the next kilometre is part of the Liebesweg, a thematic circular route whose theme is love, and couples. I am instructed to walk the circuit with my partner and take the time to reflect on our relationship. With no partner available this weekend, I have little choice but to go it alone. 

Down into the valley of the Kleine Emme

After the initial climb over the Sonnenberg, the rest of today's walk remains in the valley, mostly following the south bank of the Kleine Emme. It can hardly be described as a peaceful route, as there is a busy, noisy road on the other bank of the river. I wonder why the planners of the Alpine Panorama Trail chose this valley itinerary, rather than routing the path over the line of hills to the south: the views of the Pilatus must be superb from up there, while my riverside route offers no Alpine panoramas at all. Had it been a week or two later I would certainly have opted for the higher-level route myself, but today the hills are still carrying quite a bit of snow and I have decided to stick to the valley.

I continue alongside the river towards the village of Malters, stopping along the way for a rather unsatisfactory lunch of sandwiches, spoilt by the noise of the road across the water. In Malters, families are indulging in all kinds of spring activities: cleaning bikes, sweeping leaves from drives and patios, cutting dead wood from plants abd bushes. At the far end of the village, a large group of teenagers are having a barbecue beside the river; as I pass by, I am surprised to hear that they are talking English, which I would not have expected in such a place. I pass a small house hidden behind high walls, its entrance decorated with stone statues of large, droopy-looking dogs. A sign on the closed gate says "Welcome"… but nobody seems to have informed the large, droopy but very much alive dog that is standing just behind the gate, barking and growling in a way that does not suggest that visitors are in any way welcome. On the far bank of the river, the road is still intrusive but is now carrying less traffic than before Malters.

Impressive flood defences at Ettisbüel
At Ettisbüel, where the Kleine Emme widens, and is joined by a side stream, impressive flood defence measures have been taken, including 5-metre-high metal pillars to stop rocks and tree trunks that may be carried down when the river is in flood. The river in question looks inoffensive today, but the valley of the Kleine Emme has been subjected to serious damage over the years, when summer storms in the mountains above are capable of turning the tranquil river into an uncontrollable torrent that sweeps away bridges and roads. A little further on, a shed beside the path has been decorated with every conceivable type of ironmongery: old wheels, pots and pans, milk churns, and tools. Looking back, the haze has cleared and the Pilatus appears as an impressive barrier of snow-covered cliffs above green fields.

A very artistic shed near Schachen
Looking back towards the Pilatus
Beyond the village of Schachen the valley narrows, its sides become higher and rockier, and the river runs faster. I follow a muddy track below damp, dripping cliffs… and suddenly, up ahead, there is the highlight of the day. The abbey of Werthenstein, all whitewashed walls and red roofs, sits on a rocky bluff above a bend in the river and, seen from here, looks like one of Bavarian King Ludwig's mad castles. I climb up a steep little road to the abbey, and go to have a look inside. It proves to be worthwhile: it's a pretty collection of buildings, with a church surrounded by a cloister. Below the abbey, a covered wooden bridge takes me to the north side of the river for the first time. 

Kloster Werthenstein
It's only another half an hour's walk to Wolhusen, at the end of today's stage. This last section is devoid of interest and is all on asphalted roads. I lose sight of the waymarking somewhere or other, miss a turning and end up walking down into Wolhusen along a busy, narrow road with no pavement: not an ideal place for a walker.

And now I will have to put the Alpine Panorama Trail on hold for a month or two. The next stage goes up over the Napf, one of the highest points of the entire route at more than 1403 metres, where there must still be too much snow for the time being. Time to look for some alternative routes until spring arrives for good.

21 February 2016

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 13, from Cham to Lucerne

Time: 6.5 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 890 metres
Height loss: 880 metres

Cham – Meierskappel – Michaelskreuz – Haltikon - Lucerne

After a week of truly miserable weather – grey skies, flurries of snow and a damp, penetrating cold – the forecasters have predicted a springlike Sunday. The temperature should hit about 15 degrees, before rapidly returning to snow and rain by Tuesday. All week in the office, people have been talking about this magical Sunday and making plans for it. I am no exception; it looks like it will be a perfect day for the long but easy walk from Cham to Lucerne.

Except that the forecasters seem to have got it wrong. It's annoying: I have made the effort to get up early, and am far from pleased to see a sky whose grey is dark and uniform. The only thing that keeps me from a swift return to bed is the certainty that at some point during the day, the cloud will give way to sunshine. The question is: will it happen early enough?

It's only a 20-minute train ride to Cham, and I am ready to start walking at 9:45. The sky is still grey, but it is considerably less cold than it has been all week. Away to the south, there are signs that things may improve: over there, the clouds are white rather than grey. As I start to walk, occasional blasts of much, much warmer air hit me, an early clue of the way the day will develop. As I walk southwards along the west bank of the Zugersee, the Alps appear up ahead in the far distance, a huge wall of snowy whiteness disappearing up into the clouds. In fact, with patches of black rock mixed in with the snow, the overall impression is of a massive, frothing tidal wave bearing down on the Zugerland from the south. The lake itself appears in the distance, shimmering grey in the morning light, but the lane that I am following stays well away from the water's edge, which is lined with large, private properties. Numerous signposts bear the words PRIVAT and VERBOT… they do like their do-not signs in central Switzerland!

A rather grey start by the Zugersee
The first 90 minutes of today's walk are all on hard-surfaced lanes, but the gentle landscape is pleasant enough. I have one minor scare where I almost get hit by a piece of wood falling from a tree: too small to be called a branch, but pretty sizeable for a twig, it would have left me with a nice bump had it hit me on the head. A donkey brays loudly from somewhere inside a barn while, in the garden of another house, every available tree, pillar or post has been draped in coloured pennants… Nepal comes to canton Zug. The village of Buonas is a pretty cluster of old houses, full of character, not yet completely spoilt by the modern, upmarket properties that have sprung up on the hillside above the lake. I am overtaken by a couple of Nordic walkers; worth noting in the sense that I cannot remember having seen a man (and a fairly young one at that, certainly younger than me) indulging in the sport.

The lane skirts round an area of woodland, and suddenly the mountains appear again up ahead. Now though, the cloud that was covering them has cleared, and they stand out sharp and white against a pale blue background. The blue is still a very long way away though, it will be another hour and a half before the cloud clears from here. The lane crosses above the motorway and railway that head southwards towards Ticino and Italy; cars are rushing along in a race to get to the sun while, in the foreground, the rocky bands of the Rigi's north face already seem to have lost a lot of the snow that plastered them earlier in the week. A signpost by the motorway bridge indicates half an hour to Meierskappel: a clear error, as the village is visible just up ahead and it only takes me 15 minutes to get there. There is some major excavation work going on on the hillside above Meierskappel. Whether the digging is a preface to the building of more expensive houses, or rather to consolidate the ground against landslides is hard to determine… but it's a bit of an eyesore. I continue uphill out of the village, above the excavation and below a large enclosure where deer are grazing.

Finally, at the farm of Obertal (653 m), the hard-surfaced lane comes to an end. I almost regret it though, as the steep grassy slope up which I now have to climb is muddy and slippery in the extreme, making progress laborious and threatening a not very elegant mudbath at any moment. Half an hour of uphill slog brings me to the hilltop above the hamlet of Michaelskreuz, the day's highest point at an altitude of 796 metres.

And suddenly, there are the mountains
Despite its modest height, Michaelskreuz must be one of the great viewpoints of the Alpine Panorama Trail. The effect is similar to that which you get on arriving at the almost equally modest Kaienspitz on Stage 1: suddenly, the whole of the Alps seem to appear out of nowhere, their summits blazing white in the sunlight. Clustered around the stone chapel and surrounded by a few trees, wooden benches simply cry out: "Sit down, look at the view and have lunch". So that's exactly what I do. In front of me, to the southeast, the waters of the Zugersee stretch away, leading the eye towards an array of snowy summits and rocky ridges. To the south, white walls of snow and jagged peaks compete for my attention. It is really a lovely spot, and I am far from alone in enjoying it. The sky is exactly divided between grey to the north and left, and blue to the south and right.

As I sit down on my chosen bench, the chapel's bell starts to ring, announcing midday and the arrival of the sun. By the time I have finished my carrot and cauliflower soup, a ham and piccalilli sandwich and a cheese and lettuce sandwich, the cloud has disappeared completely and suddenly, the weather forecasters' spring magic is here. I extend my lunch break by another half an hour in order to sketch the southeastward view.

From Michaelskreuz, the Alpine Panorama Trail heads southwards along the crest of the Rooterberg, passes through the villages of Udligenswil and Adligenswil, then drops down to the lakeside at Lucerne. I have done that walk before though (and remember that it took ages to cross the not very pretty Adligenswil), so I improvise an alternative, parallel route a little further eastwards. It proves to be a good choice. I drop down to the valley below the summit, then continue along a succession of farm tracks, lanes and grassy paths. The Rigi gets bigger and bigger in front of me until, as I drop down towards Haltikon, it has become an immense, impressive barrier of a mountain, completely dominating the landscape. In between, the fields are vividly green; it really feels more like May than February.

The Rigi seen from the fields above Haltikon
Haltikon is a small roadside village and is dominated by a very large sawmill. The smell of freshly cut wood drifts up to me well before I reach the village, and persists until well after I have left it. Endless planks of wood of different thicknesses are stacked up beside the path, while the forest itself seems to have been used as storage space for hundreds of tree trunks that are waiting their turn to be smoothed and straightened.

Now begins a long section of very pretty woodland walking. The trees are far enough apart to allow the sunlight to pass, creating all sorts of interesting light and shadow effects. Occasionally, the forest opens up into little valleys where streams trickle across the marshy ground. A signpost tells me that horses are not allowed to use the path: ten minutes later, I come across a group of people having a barbecue by a little lake… complete with a horse (I should add that the horse was not actually taking part in the barbecue). Beyond this point, I begin the long descent towards Lucerne, crossing occasional roads which are the only sign that one of Switzerland's biggest towns is only a couple of kilometres away. Up in the sky, above the Pilatus which has now appeared as if to tell me that I'm nearly home, flying saucer-shaped clouds suggest that up there, all is not as serene as one might think: the wind is blowing hard at altitude and the spring weather will be ephemeral.

One last steep drop and I reach Würzenbach, on the outskirts of Lucerne. By the stream that gives the suburb its name, a woman is playing with the biggest, fattest cat I have ever seen. I follow the path that runs between the houses alongside the stream, until I finally reach the lakeside not far from the Swiss transport museum.

The lakeside at Lucerne
The whole of Lucerne seems to have come out for a Sunday afternoon stroll by the lake; I don't think I have ever seen so many people there. The lake is a deep blue, framed by green lawns and backed by snowy mountains; it's a real privilege to live in a place like this. The light is beautiful, so I sit down on a rock and sketch the view, trying to ignore the crowds passing behind me. Another half an hour's walking and I am home, just as the sun dips below the hills west of the city: that will be my direction for the next stage.

06 February 2016

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 12, from Oberägeri to Cham

Time: 5.5 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 575 metres
Height loss: 880 metres

Oberägeri – Unterägeri – Zug - Cham

Those who have been following my slow progress along Switzerland's national route No. 3 will remember that I walked the previous stage with a friend who was staying with me over the New Year holiday. On 30th December we reached Oberägeri on a warm, sunny afternoon. Two days later on New Year's Day, we attempted the next leg, but after about an hour's walking were engulfed in thick, freezing fog and made a rapid exit to the nearest bus stop.

A month has gone by and it is February before I pick up my cross-country route again. A week of mild weather that would not have been out of place in April was rudely interrupted on Thursday by a cold front and snowfalls down to a fairly low altitude. More rain is forecast for Sunday, so I break with habit and decide to hike on Saturday, when conditions should be better. It is pleasantly sunny in Lucerne when I leave home, with just a thin veil of high, wispy clouds. But in Zug, where I change from train to bus a quarter of an hour later, the fog is back again and I wonder if I will suffer the same fate as on 1st January. Halfway up to Oberägeri the bus breaks clear of the cold greyness, but I doubt that there will be enough strength in the sun to clear the mist completely today.

Today's walk is a tale of two lakes, starting as it does on the banks of the Ägerisee and ending by the side of the Zugersee. In between, two short climbs will take me over the low hills that bound the Ägerital valley, cutting it off from the busy, urbanised lowlands down below. In Oberägeri, at 735 metres above sea level, a few families are sitting by the waterside, feeding the ducks. The smooth, dark surface of the lake stretches away southwards, a dusting of snow covering the wooded hills that surround it.

Oberägeri and the Ägerisee
My walk begins with a steep climb up through the village. Three cats observe me from a window-sill; two of them are perfectly black, the third one perfectly white. I will see lots of cats today; curiously, all of them will be black apart from this one trend-defying specimen in Oberägeri. There seem to be cranes and building sites everywhere across the sunny, south-facing hillside above the lake. Despite its relative isolation, Oberägeri is a desirable (and expensive) place to live, and is expanding fast as people build their rooms with a view. Some of the new houses appear to be tiny at first glance… but they are built into the steep hillside and often, the part visible from the road is just the entrance door, with the remainder of what are probably vast apartments hidden down below.

This initial climb ends at the Kistenpass restaurant which, a sign informs me, is open on Saturdays and Sunday from 9:30. There is a pungent smell of cows here, although no animals are visible. A thin layer of snow covers the fields beside the lane that I am following, but the road itself has been cleared. Like some of the earlier stages of the Alpine Panorama Trail, this one suffers somewhat from an excess of hard surfaces underfoot… hardly surprising though, at such a low altitude and in such a densely populated part of the country: Zürich is barely 30 kilometres away.

At Hinterwiden though, my route leaves the lane and strikes off across country, heading for a tree-lined ridge which, according to a yellow signpost, is a panoramic viewpoint. Dogs bark furiously at me as I pass by the farmhouse, but they have been well educated and stay at a safe distance. Now I have snow underfoot, though it is not deep enough to be in any way inconvenient. I reach the ridge, and the day's highest point at 984 metres. Although I have only been walking for an hour and it is way too soon for lunch, I decide to stop anyway: the view from here is superb, and I am not sure that I will find anywhere else as suitable further on. This is the only place along today's route where I get to see a real mountain panorama; for the most part, the Alpine views are either behind me or hidden by woods and lower hills.

Looking south-east from the highest point of the walk
Steeply downhill now, towards Unterägeri, with the Rigi and Pilatus ahead in the distance. This part of the walk is slippery in the extreme: the snow has largely melted but the subsoil is still frozen, resulting in a muddy, slithery surface that offers no grip at all to my mud-caked boots. Several times I am within a whisker of finding myself prostrate in the mud, but somehow I manage to stay on my feet. On the very edge of Unterägeri, what must have once been a grand villa with turrets and towers has been transformed into a sinister haunted house: abandoned, windows either broken or boarded up, covered in graffiti.

Unterägeri is larger than its sister village, and it takes me a while to cross it from one side to the other. It looks like carnival has just finished; the pavements are covered in confetti and streamers float in the gentle wind above the streets. At a farm on the far edge of the village, signs inform me that the enclosure past which I am walking contains several varieties of rare sheep. So rare, in fact, that there is not a single sheep in sight, although a distinctly sheepy smell and a tinkling of bells from within a barn suggests that they are there somewhere.

A lane leads me away from the village, first south-westwards then swinging round to head north-westwards between fields and farmhouses. There are plenty of people out for afternoon walks along this stretch. A young girl passes on a shaggy Shetland pony, her mother jogging along beside her. A couple ahead of me are walking two large German shepherds, play-fighting and growling at each other, tails wagging furiously. A signpost tells me that I am following the route of "Nordic Walking Ägerital", but there does not seem to be anyone indulging in this incomprehensibly fashionable form of exercise. Although having said that, one blonde dog-walking woman whom I pass could well be Swedish, which presumably would make her a Nordic walker… I come to a little ski-lift, standing idle and forlorn in the middle of an expanse of green, waiting for snow that may not come at all this winter. The café at the bottom of the lift is open, trying to make a few francs selling drinks despite the absence of skiers.

In the Ägerital valley
A succession of lanes, stony tracks and paths lead me around the western side of a pretty, marshy valley (Zigermoos, 777 m). A wooden walkway has been laid across one particularly damp piece of ground and is treacherously covered in a thin film of ice. The path crosses a patch of woodland, emerging into occasional clearings where the sun has not made much impact on the snow underfoot. I reach the end of the woods at Unter Brunegg, 770 m, where a big, new farmhouse has been built in perfect respect of the traditional local style, all wooden panelling and gable-end windows. I hear the noise of an electric motor behind me, and am surprised to be overtaken by a young woman who is balancing on a strange contraption, its two large wheels side by side rather than one behind the other (I am subsequently informed that it's called a Segway). At a place where a road sign indicates that the lane is private and closed to traffic, a big black Range Rover passes me. The car stops, the driver has a good look at the sign… then carries on up the hill, as if to say: "I've got a big black Range Rover, I can do what I want".

A short but steep climb up a muddy farm track brings me to the day's second "summit", at an altitude of about 850 metres. Here, the view opens out northwards, towards the Albis hills, stretching away to the distant Uetliberg above the city of Zürich. Closer at hand, the banging of drums floats up from the village of Allenwinden, where carnival celebrations are in full swing. I continue past the hamlets of Bilgerighof and Muserhof, now starting to lose height. And suddenly, there is the blue water of the Zugersee ahead of me, and the urban sprawl of Zug and Baar just down below. I am pleased to see that the fog has cleared, though the air over the lake is still hazy. I send a photo to my New Year friend, to show her that Zug is not permanently engulfed in fog. Most surprising though is the sudden traffic noise. One minute I was alone in silence; the next, there is a constant background hum coming up from the towns below. It makes one realise just how much noise our everyday lives generate, without us really being aware of it.

Ober Brunegg
Another steep descent down slippery, muddy grass leads to a stony forest track which zigzags down to the whitewashed St. Verena's chapel, just at the upper limit of the urban area at an altitude of 582 metres. From here, it's an easy half hour's walking down to the lakeside, which I reach via a very well-ordered hillside cemetery and the streets of Zug's old town.

I am not a big fan of Zug, it has to be said. It feels too rich; its little old town is pretty but always lifeless and deserted; and there are any number of functional but unbelievably ugly buildings. All in all, Zug and Baar are a fine example of the worst of Swiss urbanism. Zug does have a big redeeming feature though: its lakeside is beautiful. I walk down to the edge of the water and look across the lake to where the tall, slender tower of Cham's church rises up above the perfectly calm surface of the lake. That is my destination for today; another hour's flat walking along the lakeside path will take me there.

The old town in Zug... pretty but lifeless
Looking across to Cham from Zug
The lakeside is crowded and very cosmopolitan. Every language in the world (or at least in Europe – the third world is not much in evidence here) can be heard; the most surprising thing is the lack of people speaking Swiss German. Zug has the reputation of being a paradise for rich expatriates, and it's not hard to see why… I already felt out of place when I lived here, and the feeling is even stronger today. My mud-plastered boots and trousers attract more than one disapproving glance from the well-dressed Saturday strollers. Never mind though, the view southwards across the lake towards the distant Rigi and Pilatus is magnificent, as the sun goes down in a sky that is all gentle blues and grey. 

Looking down the Zugersee towards the Rigi
I reach Cham at a quarter past five, and half an hour later am back in Lucerne. The station is a noisy, chaotic mass of people in carnival costume mixed up with people carrying skis and snowboards; it feels rather more fun than Zug, which probably explains why I moved here. The next leg of the Alpine Panorama Trail will bring me right to my doorstep, before I head off into the west.